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Tension over Obama policies within Immigration and Customs Enforcement

By Andrew Becker
Friday, August 27, 2010; B03

As it poises for further immigration initiatives, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is struggling with festering internal divisions between political appointees and career officials over how to enforce laws and handle detainees facing deportation.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security has shifted its focus away from the worksite raids and sweeps employed during George W. Bush's presidency to deporting more criminals and creating less prisonlike detention settings. But ICE, a branch of DHS, is facing intensified resistance from agency middle managers and attorneys, and the union that represents immigration officers.

The internal conflict has grown increasingly public over ICE's plans, among them to expand a risk assessment tool to guide agents on detention decisions, cut down on transfers of detained immigrants, and open more "civil" detention facilities -- what field directors call "soft" detention.

Immigration officers say the new measures limit their enforcement efforts and the revamped lockups will compromise their safety. In June, their union took the unprecedented step of issuing a vote of no confidence in the agency's director, John Morton, and the official overseeing detention reform, Phyllis Coven.

Months before that, the 24 field managers who oversee detention and deportation sent a memorandum to Morton that challenged a number of recommended changes. Current and former ICE attorneys in New York, Houston and other offices nationwide say they are angry that they have been instructed to drop efforts to deport some immigrants.

"We can't find a supervisor or manager that supports Morton or his initiatives," said Chris Crane, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Council 118, the union that issued the no-confidence vote.

Many of the measures, set to be implemented in the coming weeks and months, may not require a conversation with the union, but ICE leadership seeks the union's viewpoint on issues tied most closely to immigration reform, said Beth Gibson, ICE's assistant deputy director.

"We are at the beginning of a big push," Gibson said in an interview. "We are about to come up on a series of things I see as incredibly powerful pieces of reform."

Crane said the union wants to negotiate over implementation, which could delay some changes.

The criticisms of ICE illustrate the obstacles the Obama administration must navigate in selling the changes to the ranks while trying to appear both tough on enforcement and serious about fixing the nation's immigration laws. The friction between the agency's leadership and managers tasked with instituting the changes reflects the nation's split over immigration.

A senior White House official, acknowledging the rift between ICE leadership and boots-on-the-ground employees, said the union's unusual posture of addressing policy sent a message consistent with groups that espouse tougher immigration restrictions.

"The call from the left is John Morton is too tough. The guy is leading the effort to remove more people from the country than ever before," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. "That others say he's soft on enforcement strikes me as remarkable. At the end of the day, it's about sound law-and-order principles, not decisions based on the political wind."

Several current and former immigration officers, senior managers and attorneys, however, said in interviews that the agency's leadership regularly changes course on policy, apparently based on the political climate. Attorneys point to an ongoing review of pending cases and the dismissal of deportation charges against some immigrants without serious criminal records.

Michael D. Rozos Sr., who retired May 1 as one of the agency's most senior field managers, said he left his position in Miami "several years early" out of frustration that the agency was moving backward toward the years of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The defunct agency became part of ICE when DHS was created in 2002.

"I see a repeat of what the INS was like, which was chasing its tail," Rozos said. "They're trying to go in every direction and end up going in circles."

Rozos was one of the 24 field managers who sent a 19-page memo, obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, that outlined objections to an October report widely adopted as the detention-policy playbook. They also complained that their input was never sought.

"The Report seems to advocate that an entirely 'soft' detention system would be the ideal," the memo states. "In reality, there is a significant population with criminal convictions, arrest histories, gang affiliation, psychological issues, drug abuse, etc., and these individuals pose a flight risk or security risk to ICE officers, other detainees and, at times, themselves."

The "soft" detention facilities will house low-risk detainees without criminal records in less restrictive settings while giving more access to recreation.

One of the new civil detention sites, the James Musick Facility, is a non-working farm near Los Angeles, Gibson said. Other lockups will open in San Francisco, Miami, Chicago and elsewhere to cut down on transfers.

ICE spokesman Brian P. Hale said the agency remains committed to reform, despite the internal rumblings. "There are significant numbers that are in agreement and support our effort," Hale said. "Our challenge and ultimate goal is to stay focused and successfully implement our goals."

ICE might not be alone in facing a backlash. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) in July released a leaked draft memo from ICE's sister agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which outlined administrative remedies if a legislative fix falls short.

The memo angered Republicans, who said it proved the Obama administration wants to circumvent Congress to provide amnesty to thousands of illegal immigrants.

Janice Kephart of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for immigration restrictions, said agents are frustrated because they feel they aren't allowed to do their jobs to fully enforce the law. Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration-reform group America's Voice, said ICE is run by "a bunch of political appointees on top of a rogue agency."

Doris Meissner, who as INS commissioner in the 1990s saw similar tensions, said the union's message is a "severe internal pushback."

"It is a barometer of how difficult it is to make change and how they have to really work it internally as well as externally," added Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

Though ideological differences pose a challenge, they are not insurmountable, Meissner said, adding that she expects ICE employees to follow the new policies. The dissension, fostered by the country's polarization over immigration, is a product of legislative inaction, she said.

"Congress hasn't moved forward with the legislation that the administration envisioned, which puts ICE in the middle of the fray," she said. "The only thing happening with immigration in the country is enforcement."

Andrew Becker is a reporter for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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